San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Deep Sea Bottom Holds Unknown Treasures

Did you know that the incredible rain forests of Costa Rica might not even be the most biodiverse ecosystems in the country? That there may be another place with at least as great a profusion of creation as Costa Rica’s famous humid, wet, rain and cloud forests?

Growing, blooming and thriving on the deep sea bottoms of Costa Rican waters are countless creatures that rival those in any rain forest for strangeness, utility and beauty. This most mysterious of Earth’s ecosystems is known as the benthic.

Kilometers deep, fragile, cold-water coral reefs are as beautiful as the famous warmwater ones growing on shallow bottoms.

There are hidden gardens of giant sponges. There is a mysterious area where, instead of water near the temperature of ice, like in benthic regions in the rest of the known planet, the deep sea is warm. Thousands of animals new to science are sure to grow here.

In fact, most, if not all, of Costa Rica’s deep sea bottoms, cold or warm, are likely to contain loads of life unknown to the light of day or human consciousness. Scientists working to green the world and to stop global warming and cancer don’t know what pharmaceutical cornucopia and biological blueprints the benthic ecosystems have to offer. Benthic exploration-generated patents have already made billions of dollars.

Most of us can’t see the marine life of the benthic in the flesh. Yet more deep-sea expeditions are going on in Costa Rica than most people realize. With Costa Rica’s wealth of marine resources, it’s only a matter of time before someone starts offering submarine tours. You might think it far-fetched, but you will find there are many such tours around the world – there are even hotels where you must dive down to your underwater big-windowed room. This correspondent worked on tourist submarines packed with people every trip off the Caribbean islands of Barbados and St. Thomas. And that was nearly 20 years ago.

Nico Ghersinich, who has worked on submarines exploring the depths of Isla del Coco, an island and national park 535 kilometers off the country’s Pacific coast, says Costa Rica’s benthic is as amazing as anything he has ever seen. He says anyone who sees it is just left hungry for more. His stories of fantastic beasts, big and small, and otherworldly sights will hold any room of old salts enthralled.

If you really want to see the life of Costa Rica’s benthic, however, you only have to check out one of the many bottom-trawling shrimp boats working the country’s waters. Then you can see the corals, sea fans and beasts of the deep sea brought up every day, dead and dying in the nets. But you have to look quick before the “waste” is shoveled back overboard to be eaten by clouds of waiting birds and fish. In some parts of the world, deep-sea trawlers bring up tons of coral and fans and other strange benthic life with each haul of the giant nets.

And the nets really are giant. Imagine a net taller than a double-decker bus, as wide as San José’s Paseo Colón, coming down the street with big lead rollers holding down the bottom to sweep everything inside. Imagine the net is pulled by a very slow airplane a kilometer or two above, on a cloudy, moonless night. That’s pretty much what’s happening to much of Costa Rica’s deep blue sea.

One old shrimper captain told me that, years ago, the nets used to come up with much more hard coral and fans. He said nowadays it’s much less. He reckoned much of the bottom has been razed to mud and sand, and so the nets come up with far fewer strange creatures than before.

Protecting a slice of Costa Rica’s benthic ecosystems makes sense for both future bioprospecting and marine tourism. Many scientists are already calling for a worldwide ban on deep-sea trawlers until we can get a better sense of what we are losing. A lot of people once thought razing the rain forest to make cattle pasture made economic sense. Razing benthic ecosystems for shrimp makes about as much sense.


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